Yemen in 2018: Deepening war or nearing peace?
Last year in Yemen was harsh, tumultuous and violent. 2018 has brought both hopes of bringing peace and fears of deepening war. Yemenis face two options this year: the war could be bloodier and more inhumane than the previous twelve months - or it could be a window to fruitful peace talks and serious ceasefires.
On Saturday, January 6, Maeein Sharim, the UN deputy special envoy to Yemen, landed in Sanaa with the aim of reviving peace talks in this war-ravaged country. Over the past three years of the conflict, UN diplomatic efforts have stalled. Several conferences - including the Geneva and Kuwait talks - have fallen apart.
It has been almost a year and a half since the Kuwait talks collapsed. Hitherto, the UN has not been able to dictate any viable solution or lessen the cruelty of the situation.
Yemen continues to be subject to huge political chaos. In the past three years, the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh allied to form one side of the war. But the Houthis eliminated Saleh in early December after a feud. The Houthis alone now form one side of this war; the internationally recognized government the other.
|When the deputy envoy arrived in Sanaa a month ago, hopes were that the diplomat's visit to the Houthis would be an opportunity to break the stalemate|
Today, the UN has no option but to talk with the Houthis as the number-one political actor in Yemen's Sanaa. Over the past two years, the Houthis have been unsatisfied with the neutrality of UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismael Ould Sheikh Ahmed. When the deputy envoy arrived in Sanaa a month ago, hopes were that the diplomat's visit to the Houthis would be an opportunity to break the stalemate.
Following his arrival, Houthi officials expressed a willingness to engage in peace talks. Mohammed Abdulsalam, the spokesperson of the Houthi group, said on his Facebook page "everyone is ready for peace".
"Everyone is prepared for advancing towards and seeking fair peace within the frame of the Republic of Yemen in a way that maintains stability and sovereignty and preserves the nation's unity and independence," said Abdulsalam. In addition, he emphasised that people of all walks of life in Yemen reject the "aggression and blockade".
Saleh al-Samad, the president of the Houthis' Political Council in Sanaa, met with the UN deputy envoy, saying: "Yemen is ready for peace talks if the Saudi aggression [is] stopped."
In a televised speech in early December, Samad called for peace talks with the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting the Houthi group since March 2015.
"We invite the aggressor states to end their aggression and blockade and to engage in serious dialogue with the Republic of Yemen to bring about security and stability," he said.
While calls for peace can still be heard, acts of war remain louder.
Favouring the military option
In spite of the UN attempt to revive peace talks, this year has been bloody since the outset. Scores were killed in the first week of 2018 in airstrikes across the country, and the UN deputy left Sanaa without making any major headway.
The war is intensifying amid faltering UN-led peace efforts. But the international community alone and regional powers are not solely to blame. It is the Yemeni warring sides who are pigheaded and unwilling to give an inch in peace negotiations.
After three years of war, the Saudi-backed Yemen government is loathing any peace dialogue with the Houthis. The government appears to be betting on its weapon arsenals and troops, no longer on the negotiating table.
Pro-government forces have been gaining ground, recapturing territory from the Houthis in multiple areas since December. This shift in the battleground came on the heels of Saleh's killing.
Fighters loyal to the coalition-backed government recaptured Khowkha district in Hodeida to the west of Yemen. They seized Houthi-held districts in Shabwa to the south, and they desperately advance in Nehm district to the east of Sanaa. These military escalations have emboldened the Yemeni government to pin hope on the military option.
|Over the past three years, the conflict has killed thousands of people; epidemics have also taken a heavy toll and famine has claimed the lives of adults and children|
Preconditions for talks
On Monday, January 8, Yemen's Foreign Minister Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi, said the government would not get involved in any peace talks with the Houthis unless particular conditions were met.
Talks would take place once the Houthis "stop their crimes against the Yemeni people, stop firing missiles and attacking cities and permit humanitarian access to Yemenis", he said.
The parties to the conflict in Yemen constantly make preconditions for peace talks, and in so doing, they implicitly state they favour the military solution over the diplomatic one.
Meanwhile, Houthi spokesman Samad threatened that if the coalition-supported military advance towards Hodeida continued, the Houthis would block the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, one of the world's major shipping trade routes.
The Yemeni politicians and warlords appear to have the stamina to proceed with the war indefinitely. But millions of civilians in Yemen are at fatal risk of famine and epidemics. Over the past three years, the conflict has killed thousands of people; epidemics have also taken a heavy toll and famine has claimed the lives of adults and children.
Yemen is on the threshold of a new year which could amplify the misery or hopefully bring some relief.
Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper.